Two days ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that’s probably still causing the meat industry leaders to quiver in their star-studded boots. The agency has convened together a working group of 22 experts, who reviewed more than 800 studies on the association between cancer and red and processed meat. The final results were phrased unequivocally: eating just 50 grams of processed meat every day makes one 18% more likely to develop colorectal (bowel) cancer.
The obvious question that rises now deals with the future of meat eating. Are we about to see the demise of hamburger joints? Is McDonald’s about to go down in flames, along with its beef patties?
Probably not, at least in the short term, for a few reasons.
Reasons for Meat to Stay
I divide the reasons that meat will remain in culture into two different categories, each coming from a different audience: the reactions in the public, and the innovations coming from start-ups.
Will the public forego meat? That is one possible outcome, but it seems extremely radical in the short term. Even now, articles in journals and magazines bring sense and nuances into the WHO’s declaration: they explain that while an 18% increased chance to develop cancer sounds frightening, the actual numbers are much more nuanced. When Cancer Research UK crunched the numbers, it found out that –
“…out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).”
Now, that sounds much less scary, doesn’t it?
The articles also explain the rationale behind the WHO’s five categories of potential cancer-inducing agents and chemicals. In Group 1 you can find the agents that the experts are certain of their potential to cause cancer, but there is no distinction between the different levels of harm caused by each substance! That means that tobacco and processed meat exist side by side in Group 1, even though smoking kills more than one million people every year, whereas processed meat kills ‘only’ 34,000 people every year. And guess what? People are still smoking, with 17.8% of all U.S. adults smoking cigarettes!
And that leads us to another matter: people are willing to do things that are harmful to them in the long run. We go out to the sun, even though the sun’s radiation is also in the Group 1. Women take contraceptives to make sure they do not get pregnant – despite the known increased risk of cancer. And of course, 51.9% of all Americans aged 12 or older consume alcohol, even though the ethanol in the drink has also been shown to cause cancer. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t stop investing in meat production anytime soon (figuratively, since I don’t invest in the stock market; I’m a wary futurist).
All of the above does not mean that we won’t let go of meat eventually, in the long term. But at least in the short term, much more needs to happen in order to make people radically change their dietary habits. Culture, as you may remember from a previous post about pace-layer analysis, is very slow indeed to change.
The New Meat Start-Ups
Whenever human beings run into a wall that stands in the way of their desires, they either break it down or find ways to go around it. The most obvious solution in this case would be to develop new kinds of cooking and preservation methods for meat that do not involve the dangerous chemicals highlighted by the WHO. We can expect to see hamburger joints coming up with hamburgers made from unprocessed meat, possibly with an emphasis on freshness. And since it seems that barbecuing the meat can also cause cancer, other types of dishes like goulash might gain popularity in place of steaks.
While I don’t know what innovations will come up in the meat industry, I feel confident that they will arrive. Where there is great need, there is also great money – and innovators go where the money is.
Even in the face of the WHO’s declaration, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that people will stop eating meat anytime soon. Note the emphasis on “soon”. It is entirely possible that a movement will rise out of this declaration, and urge people to let go of meat altogether. Such a movement will probably base itself on panic-mongering, distorting the evidence to lead people to the belief that all meat is bad for them. But even this kind of a movement will take time to develop and gather political and social power, which means the meat industry probably still has at least one generation’s lifetime – twenty years – to survive. Whether you like this assessment or not depends on your previous beliefs.
I would like to draw attention to one last issue at steak (pardon the pun). The WHO’s committee reported that – “The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.” This innocent comment reveals once again the importance of conducting research and collecting data long into the future. Most research today only lasts as long as it takes the student obtain his or her graduate degree, which makes it very difficult to collect data over time.
This is a topic for another post, really, so for now I’ll just end by saying that there is a very real need to support and fund lengthier research. Research that lasts decades provides the best evidence about the impact of nutrition and lifestyle over our lives, and it should be encouraged in the scientific community.